I don’t know if you heard, but that new Superman movie came out over the weekend, Man of Steel. I have it on good authority that it’s named that because in this iteration Clark works in a foundry. The film is getting some interestingly mixed reviews, with a lot of really smart people loving it, and a lot of them hating it, in particular the ending. Spoiler warning: the film has an ending.
This has been interesting, not simply because there are a lot of conflicting articles written about the film, and a good argument is a beautiful thing, but because the conversation has ripped open an entire slew of nuanced arguments about the nature of the Superman mythology and his place in our culture.
Ash Mahtani wrote this gorgeous bit of prose over at DC Comics (seriously go read the entire article), meditating on what makes the character matter:
Because a good Superman story isn’t about punching things into submission. It’s about the things that Superman can’t do. And how he tries to save the world anyway…
For every fire you put out, another raged half a world away. For every child you saved from abuse or neglect or an oncoming car driven by some drunken asshole, there are ten others who suffered the consequences of your impossible choice. You look at your parents, your friends, the woman you love, a newborn baby, a puppy… And you know. Not just think, but know that you will live beyond them. The world will crumble, the sun will fade, time will lose all meaning and sound will be nothing more than a memory in the dark. But you will still be there. So you try to memorize their heartbeats so you can mourn a perfect rhythm.
Power has nothing to do with it.
Several psychiatrists had this to say in an interesting article connecting Superman’s journey to things we know about psychology:
At the end of the day, Superman’s greatest power may not be a power at all, but rather, a very human quality: restraint. If Superman were to behave recklessly, the consequences could literally be earth-shattering - and make for a terrible movie (we’re looking at you, Superman III). In Man of Steel, even when the adolescent Clark Kent is faced with the aggressive teasing of other kids spoiling for a fight, he chooses not act recklessly. Maybe Superman read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War and took these words to heart: “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses people the most.”
And in the midst of a review, Dana Stevens made the connection between modern comics and medieval religious iconography:
A colleague of mine made the astute observation that superhero blockbusters have something in common with medieval religious art. Both rely on rigidly fixed iconographies drawn from a narrow range of canonical subject matter. The individual creator may vary the style, but the terms of the representation are governed by a larger divine or quasi-divine cosmic order: hence the endless variations on the Annunciation, the descent from the cross, the first appearance of the cape and tights, the final fistfight atop a skyscraper. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel doesn’t aim to turn that cosmic order inside out; this is the work of a man of faith, a director whose whole career has been predicated on his love for the comic and graphic-novel form. But Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) provides an elegantly illuminated retelling of the origin story of that most saintly of superheroes, Superman.
Finally, here’s a bit from Mark Waid, a fantastic comic book writer who has written for Superman in comics, in addition to writing the magnificent Irredeemable, which tells the story of a hero similar to Superman who snaps and becomes the ultimate villain. Waid hated the film, and wrote an enthralling blog post about why, including this gem:
The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract-he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us-but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”
So far Man of Steel might be my favorite movie of the year, and I haven’t even seen it. The reason is that films that get people arguing about the mythology of our times are few and far between, and the conversation is always more important to me than the movie that sparked it.